As a child, I remember that every day closed with one of my parents sitting on the side of my bed, the covers pulled up under my chin, and me muttering…
Now I lay me down to sleep.
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
IF I SHOULD DIE BEFORE I WAKE,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
Night after night after night after night, that third line sent chills through me. Most certainly, some frightened adult had written that prayer poem out of a desire of his heart, but it lived on to torture children all over the world, right before they went down for a restful night’s sleep. After a while, I just let the words tumble out of my mouth and tried not to think about what any of it actually meant. And this is one of the prominent ways we teach children to pray—a rhyme that is said over and over without real meaning to the child.
Another way we teach children to pray is nothing short of a Santa’s wish list. We ask children to share their requests, which is another way of saying, “Let’s tell God what you want Him to do for you.” They quickly rattle off a long “To Do” list of relatives and friends who are sick and pets that are missing. Then we acknowledge that God answers prayer only if God does it the way we’ve suggested. This may come as a surprise, but God really answers every prayer. His answers are of such a wide variety that we can’t even imagine the possibilities. It’s an every day occurrence, though, to hear someone say, “God still answers prayer,” when what they mean is, “God answered in the way I wanted Him to.”
Is this how we should teach our children to pray? Scary prayers? Prayers that fall from their tongues without thought? Prayers that find themselves alongside nursery rhymes? Prayers that instruct God exactly what He’s supposed to do for us? What would your best friend think if every time you spoke with him, you just said the same rhyme? And she most certainly wouldn’t stick around as your friend if all you ever talked to her about was what you wanted her to do for you. Something needs to change in the way we teach our children to pray.
We’re just downright good at getting ourselves into messes and then praying that God will get us out of them somehow. Instead of praying for deliverance from the mess, what if we started teaching our children to pray in the middle of the mess, not with their minds set on deliverance, but simply asking God to help them see how they can grow in His wisdom by going through it? How about praying for the strength to make it through to the other side?
If you look back on your life and identify the times when you grew spiritually—those times when spiritual growth seemed to come in leaps and bounds—I venture to say that it was in times of struggle. It was during those times when there were more questions about life than there were answers that you felt God moving in your life in a tremendous way. That’s when you saw miracles happen. That’s when you found yourself resting in His presence. Through those times, spiritual truth became clearer. So why do we shy away from that? Why do we pray that we never have to experience it? Why do we teach our children to pray safe prayers that if answered in the way they are prayed would only keep them from searching for God’s truth and His plan for their lives?
As a newlywed, 34 years ago, I woke my husband up in the middle of the night to ask him a question, “Why do we need to pray if God already knows everything?” I was content to ask the question then roll over and go back to sleep. My husband, on the other hand, wrestled with the question the rest of the night. Over the years, we’ve come back to that conversation, and it’s been a growing time. So why do we pray? It’s about coming into His presence. It’s about being part of a relationship that is alive and full of meaning. I’ve talked to a lot of children’s workers, and they all hang their heads in unison when I talk about those times when we look up and see parents at the door. We put our words in high speed and quickly tell the kids to bow their heads and close their eyes so we can pray. While you have your head bowed, the kids are putting their jackets on and not at all thinking about spending time in the presence of God. That sure doesn’t feel like leading the children to a relationship that is alive and full. The Lord deserves an apology.
One of the first things you can do to elevate the importance of prayer is change where it falls in your time with the kids. We open with a ceremonial prayer and then close haphazardly. The children know what to expect so their brains experience something similar to the sound that depicts the off-screen teacher on the Charlie Brown cartoons … blah-blah-blah-blah-blah. Think about the ways you experience a friend. You share a meal together. You go to a game with rowdy fans together. You sit with him in silence as he grieves the loss of a loved one. You sing karaoke with her. You sit quietly on a dock waiting for a fish to bite. We need to teach our kids that there are an endless number of ways they can experience the presence of God through prayer.
Prayer is a spiritual discipline, and like other disciplines, it needs to be practiced and experienced on a regular basis in order to become something that we can’t imagine living without. So our challenge is to give children an opportunity to experience the presence of God in different ways. They need to be shown how each time they engage in a conversation with God, it can be new and fresh. Prayer should be a time of evaluation, when each person makes a conscious effort to identify their spiritual condition and expose that before the Lord.
The best way to teach kids to pray is to help them understand that there is no set place or position or time of day. Since God is omnipresent and prayer is experiencing the presence of God, then anywhere, any time, any position is in fair territory. Let me just get your creative juices flowing with these prompting ideas.
1. Let John the Baptist help you pray. When John was in the wilderness, he told the people that: (1) they needed to confess their sins, (2) they needed to exchange their old lives for a new one, (3) they needed to be baptized, (4) they needed to stay on track, and (5) they needed to live authentic lives. Help the kids identify where they are in these five points. If they need to confess their sins (point #1), then tell them to put one finger of one hand in the palm of the other hand. If they have asked the Lord to forgive them of their sins, but need help staying on track so they don’t slide back into those old habits (point #4), then tell them to put four fingers of one hand in the palm of the other hand. Each point gives them a way to talk to the Lord about where they are spiritually.
2. Pray like Daniel. Daniel’s disobedience to King Nebuchadnezzar’s law was obvious because he prayed three times a day at his window. When Daniel prayed, he was unashamed. He didn’t care what other people thought of him. He only knew that he was devoted to God. You probably have a window in your worship room and most kids have a window in their bedroom. Use a Crayola window marker to write on the window. You can simply write, “Pray Today” on the window, or the kids can actually write out their prayer in its entirety on the window. Then kneel down at that window and look to the sky. Concentrating on the sky will act as a focal point and help kids clear their minds of other thoughts.
3. Pray like Moses. When Moses heard of Koreh’s plans of rebellion, the Bible tells us that Moses’ first reaction was to drop to the ground and pray. So instruct the kids to kneel all the way and bend over with their faces to the floor. Teach the children that when they are threatened by anything, they can pray like Moses and lay themselves before God.
4. Pray with the unseen paper clip. Lay a paper clip on the table; the paper clip will represent the child. That paper clip is you! Cover the paper clip with your hand so you can feel it under your knuckles. Then place a bar magnet over your knuckles. Slowly lift your hand with the bar magnet still against the knuckles. The paper clip will hang from the palm of your hand as long as the magnet stays in place. You can’t see the paper clip hanging there, but you can feel the power of the magnet. Pray that even though we can’t see where God is leading, we will always feel God’s presence. Seeing this object lesson will give the kids a way to associate with God leading them in ways they can’t see.
5. Pray a color. This is especially good with younger children. Pull one crayon from a full box. Thank God for everything you can think of that is that color. Smother God with thankfulness prayers of a particular color. That seems like a much better way to say goodnight than “IF I SHOULD DIE BEFORE I WAKE.”
Let’s raise this generation of kids to feel at ease with prayer and know it as a real conversation, not just a rhyme or a give-me list. Let’s raise them to not be afraid of going through any life situation, because God will be with them and teach them great spiritual truth on the journey.